HOW TO FIX THE HILL CUMORAH PAGEANT
I love the Hill Cumorah Pageant.
For most of the last 35 years I have spent at least one July night under a darkened New York sky watching a few hundred people act out a religious play on the side of a hill.
I love the Hill Cumorah Pageant.
But I’d like to see it improved.
No human undertaking is without flaw, and the fact an undertaking is inspired does not mean that it is perfect.
So I don’t consider it heretical to suggest the pageant can be improved. I mean no criticism, nor do I want to sound unappreciative of the current play or disrespectful of the people who lead and present it.
But you don’t climb a mountain by being content where you are. And in an era of declining attendance and changing public tastes, it may pay to at least raise the issue of breathing some new life into the venerable production.
So here are some thoughts.
I present them while this year’s pageant is still running, in order to engage the community of actors and organizers before they wrap up Saturday night and return to their real lives and responsibilities.
First, I would suggest that the Hill Cumorah Pageant’s opening and closing sequences be given some punch. The pageant is, after all, a play – a show – and some of the principles of putting on a show might be useful.
Like having a big opening and a dramatic ending.
Let’s take the ending first.
The pageant closes with what is supposed to represent the second coming of Jesus Christ – his triumphal return to earth. This is done by suddenly putting the spotlight on an actor portraying Jesus Christ.
Currently, the actor stands on the set, exactly where he stood in an earlier scene.
Then the play ends.
Sadly, it does so without a bang, and some in the audience don’t realize the pageant is over until they see the venue lights start to come up.
This can be fixed easily – by going back to the future.
In years past, the climactic reappearance of the Savior was truly climactic – because he appeared, instantly and brightly lit, in the air above the hill. Way up in the air. It was as if he was literally standing some 30 or 40 feet in the air.
It was a moment that made the audience gasp in wonder and surprise. It was a natural, happy ending – which somehow is not even remotely matched in the lower-profile, standing-on-the-ground Jesus.
Also, he used to wear a red robe over his white clothes. Somewhere, the decision was made to lose the red robe. That wasn’t a good decision. In the Bible it says Jesus will be wearing red when he returns. I don’t understand why a dramatic representation of that return would do anything different.
Put Jesus back in the air and you’ve fixed the ending.
To fix the beginning, it’s necessary to go even further back.
All the way to the Bicentennial.
In the years around 1976, the Hill Cumorah Pageant began with members of the cast unfurling a massive American flag across the face of the hill. It was visually powerful and very enthusiastically received.
But it went away.
It should come back. Before the angels’ fanfare and the cast fills the stage in the pageant’s prelude, the flag should be run out. Then, while it waves, a vintage arrangement of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir performing the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” should be played.
Then the mayor or the town supervisor or the newest Eagle Scout or the teacher of year or the president of the Rotary should ask the thousands in attendance to stand and join in reciting the Pledge of Allegiance.
Then the prayer, then the trumpets, then the pageant.
If the flag were used and respected in that fashion, much good would come from it. Spectators would begin the play with a positive emotional experience, patriotism would be displayed and encouraged, and the performance would begin with a bang.
Certainly, a church with more members outside the United States than in might shrink away from overt American patriotism. But the people in attendance wouldn’t. They would embrace it.
Before we go further, notice that I said the 1950s arrangement of the Tabernacle Choir’s “Battle Hymn” should be used. There are a few reasons for that. First of all, it is the choir’s most popular and most honored recording – ever. It is the piece of Mormon music which has been most broadly embraced by American society.
And the new stuff is dull.
As the musical culture of the Mormon church has evolved over the last couple of decades, songs have gotten slower, melodies have gotten flatter, volume has gotten softer. There is nothing wrong with that, but past Mormon musical traditions would certainly suggest that other, livelier approaches are acceptable, too.
In the Bible, for example, they shout “Hosanna,” they don’t mumble it.
And the music of the pageant should shout for joy.
It should also hold more firmly to the score of Crawford Gates, whose stunningly and reverently beautiful music has defined the pageant for all but 20 of its 75 years. It seems that there is less Gates music these days, and that his postlude music has been replaced with vapid, watered-down hymns.
The play should also bring back some of its past spectacle. The destruction scene has turned into a scene from a water park. Bring back the volcano, bring back the water splashing against the prow of Lehi’s ship, bring back the happy tossing of the child on the blanket.
Remember that the audience is comprised of people who are accustomed to bold action in their entertainment, and that showmanship is part of putting on a show.
Also remember that the Lionel Barrymore-esque manner of speaking used in the pageant’s sound track is unusual in today’s popular culture. For some it will inspire awe, for others it will just sound odd.
Finally, the pageant script does a good job of taking the narrative from the beginning of the Book of Mormon to the present, by connecting episodes from the book. But it skips over a great many beautiful and sacred things that might make the pageant both a more spiritual and entertaining presentation.
Some who attend the pageant are not Mormon, and may never again in their life have any contact with Mormonism. For those folks, some of the universal and affirming truths of the Book of Mormon would be useful and inspiring.
Alma talking about the seed of faith. King Benjamin teaching that serving our fellow man is serving our God. Any number of the various declarations that faith in Christ is the key to salvation.
Rewriting the pageant script is not something likely to happen any time soon, if ever. But that should not be interpreted to mean that it couldn’t be improved, or that this beautiful story couldn’t be told another way.
In conclusion, the challenge facing the pageant is to perform all its missions well.
It serves to provide Mormon families in the cast and support staff with a meaningful and faith-promoting religious experience. It serves as a touchstone of sorts for the thousands of Mormons each year who travel from great distances to watch the pageant.
Those missions are easily achieved, as the people involved are predisposed to be satisfied. For Mormons, the pageant is a wonderful experience that works almost no matter what. They are so happy to be participating or watching that it really doesn’t matter what happens.
For non-Mormons in the audience, however, there’s a higher standard. Their attention and hearts have to be won. They have to be gripped by the story, the presentation, and the Spirit. The pageant must overcome any awkwardness or discomfort and replace it with wonder and awe, and send the non-Mormon spectators away with the feeling that they have seen something wonderful and felt something special.
Overwhelmingly, the pageant does those things.
But there is always room for improvement.
The audience is changing – as declining attendance suggests – and perhaps the Hill Cumorah Pageant should change as well. Perhaps with a little bit of polish, this grand testament of faith can press forward for another 75 years.
- by Bob Lonsberry © 2012